The Threepenny Editor Good ideas in great hands Mon, 27 Apr 2015 15:52:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Project 2015, Part 6: Earned Emotion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 14:32:48 +0000 If you’re a writer, it should keep you up at night: the knowledge that readers will never lack a good book to read. If your own manuscript starts to go all flat and hollow, the reader can put it down and find something better. Who among us doesn’t have a long to-read list on Goodreads or the Kindle, or a good old-fashioned stack next to the already-full bookshelf? In this part of the Project 2015 course, we’re going to return to the subject of how to write emotion: how to render character emotions, because emotional investment keeps readers attached to your words.

Nowhere else in writing is the show don’t tell maxim more staggeringly true than when you write characters’ emotions. “Earning” an emotion is all about knowing the tricks of how to tee up a scene so that your reader FEELS something when reading; it’s the trick of getting your readers’ emotions to harmonize in a big way with your point-of-view character’s. That trick is the combination of a number of techniques, but the two you need to know for now are (1) rendering, and (2) front loading.

Rendering: It shows us how to see a scene through evocative details. In super-simple terms, that means if it’s a bad moment, the language you choose has a negative charge. If it’s a good moment, the language has a positive charge (e.g., compare your impression of cooking that has a scent versus food that has a stench).

Front loading: It teaches us what we need to know about a scene. Doing it is more complex, takes more time, but basically gives the reader all the context s/he needs to know how to interpret an event.

For an example of each, there is one such spot in the last book I read, Ann Leckie‘s Hugo and Nebula Award winning Ancillary Justice. In it, the narrator-character is made to shoot Lieutenant Awn:

  • The scene is powerful, first, because we know Awn is innocent, and see her on her knees and begging for her life. We also know she is the protagonist’s favorite officer.
  • We know these things because we’ve gotten many tiny cues that support the fact that Awn is worthy of admiration: e.g., the annexed local population under her command requests that she not be transferred; she is firm but uneasy around upper-class citizens, having to hide her humble accent; she embraces and comforts a newly made ancillary soldier, which everyone else perceives as mere equipment. Most important, a few scenes beforehand, she herself was ordered to execute a number of townspeople unjustly, and has been feeling bereft and miserable about it. The two unfair executions mirror each other.
  • We see that the order is painful for the narrator because the language in the scene  portrays Awn’s shock and terror at being betrayed, her “pure, sharp rage.” Her position on the floor, prostrate before her divine commander, is a detail that shows her obedience, helplessness, and lack of threat.
  • This important scene happens over halfway through the novel. The front-loading needs that much space to prepare the reader for this heart-wrenching scene, because we need to feel it in order to understand the narrator’s extreme need for revenge that leads to the climax.
  • You write emotions by doing the work of making sure we see and know enough to feel sad. That emotion, therefore, is earned.

Without that big harmony at regular intervals throughout your novel–say, at every single important turning point–your reader and character will start to drift apart and your reader will start dating other people. Er, I mean, will go pick a different book off of the massive pileup next the bookshelf.

This may be a good place to pause and give some technical background. A common challenge that writers of all levels face—especially later in a manuscript—are the characters’ tendency to overreact, or react in ways we weren’t expecting, and similarly, the story’s tendency to drift off into places we aren’t prepared for it to go. (The reader’s reaction is either, “Huh?” or, “Meh.” Or maybe your inner voice speaks in more syllables than mine.) Anyway, the key to making us feel the character’s emotions intuitively, and sense that the novel is on track, is the emotional detailing–the rendering and front-loading–you work into the novel before its major turning points.

Preparing the reader is an unsung art. When we think of novels we love, we think about the characters in the throes of whatever wrenching scenes define them, but often fail to look critically at the amount of work the author does beforehand to ensure that those key scenes have an impact on the reader. These techniques are literally the subject of master’s-level classes and long workshops.

Essentially, we need to know what to expect. The most straightforward way of showing emotion is probably the least poignant: to simply describe what the character does during the event. In other words, rendering.

Example of Rendering:

Say a woman finds a twenty-dollar bill in the street. You want us to feel something about that. But what? You can describe her racing heart, her breathless feeling of good fortune, and the way the bill warms her hand as she balls it up discreetly against her leg and walks away. That conveys an expected reaction serviceably well.


More Interesting Example (Front-Loading, Part 1):

Instead of being happy, she might react very differently. Maybe her face goes rigid and she looks over her shoulder, and up and down the street, and then steps over the bill and keeps walking. Why? To convey more complex and unpredictable—and often more memorable—reactions to an event, we need to go deeper.

Your most reliable method for doing so is front-loading. In other words, you give us key information about a character well ahead of time, and make sure we remember it. That way, when your character is confronted with an event, you don’t have to jar us, over-explain, or otherwise spend time on any task except writing a clear, effective, lean scene. The context is already there.

More Interesting Example (Front-Loading, Part 2):

To continue with the example of the woman and the money, why might she feel suspicious? Maybe you gave us a flashback much earlier where she’s growing up in a poor family, and her grandmother warns her that there is no such thing as good luck. Then you followed it up a while later with her innocent brother being shot at a party, and the unjust way his case was run by the cops. Maybe the character has a strong belief in leaving well enough alone—even if she’s living on the edge of poverty and she doesn’t have money to buy flowers for her brother’s grave. That way, when the money is there in front of her, and she’s on her way to the cemetery, she can step right over it and keep walking. We’ll have a very clear idea about the complex forces operating in her psyche. The emotion is much subtler, and possibly more poignant.

Overall, the front-loading technique requires forethought and a fair bit of space, so understandably, you only want to use it for the novel’s important emotions: the ones that push the characters in a meaningful direction and express something that hints at theme. When I’m editing, my notes will say things like, “Too explanatory,” “Jarring,” “Set this up better,” or, “We need to feel this better.” This will help you achieve emotional consistency throughout the novel, and lead the characters toward the turning points that define their lives.

The first step is always realizing where you want the novel to affect us, and then working backwards to make sure the cues line up.

If you found this helpful, check out other Project 2015 posts by clicking the tag below, or following me on Twitter (@threepenny) for updates. Thanks for reading!

]]> 0
More client successes to announce! Tue, 07 Apr 2015 18:25:58 +0000 I’m pleased to share a round-up of good news for some of Threepenny Editor’s past and current clients. I’m especially happy for client Elie Axelroth, whose very first short story, “The Sound of Emptiness” was just published in The Packingdown Review.

This spring also brought unexpected good news for poet and novelist Sweta Vikram, whose article will be adapted for national radio. Congratulations!

Glenn Damato‘s sailing memoir, Breaking Seas, hit the 20,000 sales benchmark. He was approached by a major production company about an adaptation, and also was interviewed on LA radio. He is currently finishing a novel.

I admired Kathleen Colvin‘s strong, sympathetic portrayal of Roman matriarch Fulvia, Marc Antony’s (much) better half, when we worked together in 2008–2009. I couldn’t be happier that Holly Lorincz of the MacGregor Agency feels the same way. Best of luck as the novel goes out to editors!

Fellow runner and prolific writer Tony Russo is writing a brilliant YA series set in an alternate-history WWII England. Divertr Press accepted THE DARKEST HOUR for publication last fall, and I can’t wait to see it on the shelves soon.

Viking Books is publishing Tererai Trent‘s children’s book, The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can, and it is available for preorder here. (Tererai has her own Wikipedia page. You should read it. She’s a fascinating person, and Oprah thinks so, too.)

Last and certainly not least, multiple foreign rights for Georgia Clark‘s THE REGULARS were sold following the manuscript’s sale to Emily Bestler Books (an S&S imprint) this winter. She’s currently at work on her third novel.

Are you a Threepenny Editor client? Do you have news to share? Send it to me on the Contact page and I’ll be delighted to post it here.

]]> 0
Project 2015, Part 5: Writer’s Block and Depression Wed, 01 Apr 2015 16:31:44 +0000

I want to switch it up a little, and instead of talking about “doing” of writing, look at about the “being” of writing–specifically, writer’s block and depression. A longtime client wrote to me after a while of silence, asking a heartfelt and anguished question: “I can’t hear my characters anymore. What can I do?” The problem, she said, stemmed from a difficult bout with depression. She finally started taking medication that helped her feel better, but it seemed to close the door on writing any more novels.

This has to be every writer’s worst nightmare: to wake up one day and not be able to do it anymore.

It got me thinking about the stigma against mental illness, and the fear that comes with “writer’s block,” and the unique self-awareness writers need in order to do their work. The mind is like a three-ring circus, and that’s on a good day. When anxiety and depression complicate the relationship of a person to his or her own brain, what then?

I told her that I was sorry to hear that she struggled with depression. My caveat was that I could only speak from my experience with my own difficult situations over the nearly 20 years that I’ve been writing, which did not include mental illness. My wife, however, treats a lot of anxiety/depression patients in the course of her job with the Coast Guard, and my sense of it was that when depression hits, there was really no comparison to any other kind of struggle. So, all that was to say: I couldn’t talk about mental illness and medication (though this really good article, “The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Emotions” does a great job of it). I could, however, talk about writing.

Here is what I told her.

Basically, in all these years of writing and working with manuscripts, the thing I’ve grown to appreciate about the craft is that you never, ever master it. There are so many writers, and so few masters, that the rest of us can say with 99.9 percent certainty that we will never, ever run out of room to grow. You reach milestones in your development: seeing how all the pieces fit together (voice, plot, character, etc.), then how to develop an idea to the end and finish a manuscript, then deepening the clarity of your vision, hearing characters better, and so forth. At those places, we can rest and appreciate the distance we’ve come in our personal journey. I think you’ve done that with [Title 1 redacted] and [Title 2 redacted]and I’ve no doubt you’ll grow again.

I don’t believe that writer’s block is real, and I don’t believe we lose anything we gain along the way—not unless we literally stop writing for decades and fall out of practice. I say this having been stuck, and sad, and shamed out of ideas many times, sometimes for a year or two at a time. It’s frightening in a deep, identity-threatening way, like the kind that steals the colors from the future. Not writing is like not being a person anymore. It’s what keeps me from walking away from the craft; but I’ve learned that at least for me, thinking about “writer’s block” as an external problem that is somehow infecting my own abilities or whatever is just a way of scaring myself, and not using the fallow period for something productive.

When creativity stops, I believe that it’s for a good reason. The energy isn’t gone, it’s just somewhere else inside of you right now. Slow down, go easy on yourself, pay attention to YOU and listen to YOUR voice. Writing is as much of a left-brained, technical task as it is an emotional one. When the emotional, empathetic, imaginative part of writing goes dark for a while, it’s a good time to

  • read delicious fiction;
  • think critically about why you love this or that author and what they do right and how;
  • free write every day. Even if it’s a page of literally, “Blah blah blah can’t write blah here I am with the pen blah blah not giving up, etc.”;
  • be diligent about keeping a notebook of thoughts and images and snippets of overheard dialogue.

Basically, do left-brained stuff as you can and just keep reminding your right brain that you’re not going to give up on it and will be ready to listen when it’s ready to speak again.

Changing your mode as a writer—whether it’s because you’re taking medication, or because you’re adjusting to another big change—is ALWAYS going to be disorienting and worrisome, for anyone. It’s natural. Writing is and will be there for you. Take good care of yourself and do what you can and what feels good, fun, and rich. This is one of those times when going out and savoring experiences counts as “writing.”

Over a period of time, however long, some of the anxiousness about the change in mode will start to dissipate. Maybe a new character’s voice will pop into your head out of the blue. Or maybe when you feel the nudge to work on something again, it will be a completely different approach.

The craft is big—just one long experiment in the direction of mastery. 

Like this article? View the archives for more, or follow me on Twitter (@threepenny) for writing-related news and advice.

]]> 0
Project 2015, Part 4: Making a Scene Wed, 04 Mar 2015 19:49:09 +0000 It’s a writer’s job to make a scene. Drama is our stock in trade, and we’re always plotting something. (Always the quiet ones, right?) Seriously, though, I have spent fifteen, geeky years proselytizing my love for the most basic, beautiful element of story structure: the scene. A novel has between forty and sixty of them. That’s not a lot, considering that you have only that much space to bring characters to life and lead them through a life-changing experience, all the while holding your reader in rapt suspense. Here’s how to make a hell of a scene in front of a whole lot of people (your readers).


A scene is a unit of story in which something happens in real time. It is dynamic, moving the character a little bit forward on his or her irreversible journey. (Irreversible is the key word, because otherwise, nothing changes.) Generally, a flashback is not a scene, because it happened in the past.

Also, I said it here and I’ll say it again: don’t confuse plot for drama. They are two different elements of storytelling. Plot is what happens outside your character. Drama is what happens inside your character. Good scene structure requires both. For example:

  • Plot is a relative showing up at your door; drama is the feeling of intense guilt because she is one you’ve neglected to call for a year.
  • Plot is a tornado hitting your house; drama is the pain of hearing it wipe out your ancestral family farm days after winning a lawsuit to protect it from developers.
  • Plot is an evil wizard casting a spell; drama is the anguish of seeing the love of your life leave you, because the spell made her fall in love with your worst enemy.

Make sense? Plot is an event: what happens. Drama is the emotional charge to your character: also called the “emotional underbelly.” A good scene needs them both, because without the plot event, the character’s reaction is more melodrama than drama. And without the drama, all the plot fireworks in the world won’t keep your reader awake.

Quick pause here. If you’ve been writing long enough, some of this is probably already embedded in your instincts and you include both plot and drama in many of your first-draft scenes. But if this sounds like too much to think about in a first draft, THAT IS OKAY. Diana Abu-Jaber offers one of my favorite writing quotes: “Write like Kirk, revise like Spock.” In the same vein, Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” In other words, it’s really all right if your first draft comes out a hot mess. Just move the story forward however you can and worry about scene structure in revision.

After letting the draft cool, put on your Spock ears and listen for the hollow spots. This blog post is your diagnostic tool, and offers some fixes, below.


Let’s say you find a scene that doesn’t sit well with you. A good first question to ask is, “Does it lack plot, or does it lack emotion?” Here are some ways to troubleshoot scene structure.

It lacks plot if:

It reads like classic melodrama. We see the protagonist tear his hair and cry and start vaguebooking about how some people will never be trusted again. We shrug and say, “Okay, so? Who peed in his Cheerios today?” Whatever it was that set your character off, it needs to be clear to the reader—and commensurate with the reaction. For example, how different would you feel about this guy’s reaction if we knew beforehand that his ninth-grade classmate had just outed him as gay by posting a video of an otherwise happy goodnight kiss? At that age, I would have flipped out, too.

It lacks drama if:

It’s leaves you feeling blank. Have you ever turned on the TV in the middle of an action scene—the kind with shouting special agents and a helicopter and burly men with guns—and felt exactly nothing? Or come downstairs while all your aunties are swabbing their eyes, mascara everywhere, over some scene in a movie you don’t recognize? That’s the same effect a plot-only scene has on your reader. It’s another “Okay, so?” response. We’re not feeling your character, not worried about how the action will wound or inspire him or her. It’s flimsy and cold, and we just don’t care.


Once you know which of these elements is lacking, here are two approaches to giving your scene an effective makeover.

How to add more plot to a scene

Basically, what happens? And what does your character do about it? The art of a scene isn’t just in having a piano land in the middle of the living room, but in teasing us a little. Make us want to turn the page.

Here’s the plot structure of a traditional scene. (Way more of that here, thanks to Elizabeth Lyon’s transformative book on revisions, Manuscript Makeover.) In general, a good scene begins with a situation that poses a problem to the character, one which the character tries to solve. When the first attempt fails, s/he tries again, and effects some result that creates a new problem that propels the story forward. Ideally, there will be little explaining to do (of the problem, the character’s attempts to solve it, or the resolution) because the action will be self-explanatory; as the adage says, it’s shown rather than told. In this equation there is no room for another POV, or for over-narration.

1. Situation: establishes place and time, and what the character is doing.

2. Inciting incident: something happens to disrupt the situation.

3. Attempt #1: the character tries to quell the problem the easy way.

4. Failure #1: the problem gets worse because of the first attempt.

5. Attempt #2: the character buckles down and tries again, more creatively, to resolve the problem.

6. Final failure/resolution: because the character was forced to address the problem in a new way, the result demands a shift from the status quo, thus creating the next situation. This six-step process begins again in a new scene.

How to add more drama to a scene

A scene should make us FEEL something. That is, feelings about how your character is managing his or her predicament; and by proxy, we should also empathize with your character’s own feelings, too. That’s a whole lot of feeling going on, but it matters. No matter how crusty you think you are, or how whip-smart your novel is, the opposite of feeling something is absolute boredom.

I attended a whole five-week course on how to write emotions in fiction, which itself was condensed from a fifteen-week, master’s-level seminar. It just doesn’t fit into one blog post, but here’s the quick-start version.

1. Find the place where you want the spark of emotion to leap off the page. It probably focuses on a single image, line of dialogue, or precise action. Figure out (for yourself) exactly how that makes the character feel, and what the reader should feel. You can’t be clear to the reader if you’re not clear on it yourself.

2. Work backwards from that point. Trace the buildup of that emotion. What specific thoughts, actions, and biases feed into it? Make sure all the details along the way align with that intensifying emotion. If your character ends up yelling in anger, for instance, don’t choose happy, positive, calm language to convey details in the scene.

3. If you find that at the moment of that crucial spark, you’re still having to explain what the character feels and why, consider “front loading” that information earlier in the scene, or in an earlier, adjacent scene. For instance, what do we need to know about a woman who ends up feeling an intense yearning to hear her sister say, “I love you?” What is that need about? Why does her sister’s opinion mean so much to her? As you can see, you may need to front load a lot of information in order for us to eventually feel the nuances of the character’s disappointment when her sister finally says, “Yeah, sure, you’re super,” but not I love you.

4. Take the time to perfect it. This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but never, ever forget that your novel is made out of words. And that’s it. So, care in language is a must. Take the time to choose the kind of details that evoke the emotion you’re aiming for.

When plot and drama line up

Ideally, the end of each scene is a mini-cliffhanger, handing us off to the next scene. If you’ve revised it well, we will know what feelings the event stirred up, and really, really care to see what the character is going to do next. A job well done creates the “Just two more pages and then sleep” bargain a reader ends up making with herself long past bedtime. But plot structure is the subject of a future post!

Read more Project 2015 articles here, and follow me on Twitter for other writing tips!

]]> 0
Project 2015, Part 3: “Strong Protagonists” Remind Us How to Feel Mon, 16 Feb 2015 18:11:56 +0000 There is a scene in Love Actually (2003) where Emma Thompson’s character turns to her husband and says, “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” The line stuck in my head–inevitably, because Love Actually has become the de rigueur Christmas movie in our house. Also, I think, was the provocative idea that art could teach a person how to feel.

Yet hasn’t every book lover had an experience something like this? You recognize a hard-to-explain, but powerful emotion in someone else’s writing, and say, Yes, that. That’s what I’ve felt, and I didn’t even realize it was a feeling at the time. Whether it strikes you while listening to Joni Mitchell or while you are reading Alice Munro, it feels like a shock, and then a melting: the writer has articulated something profoundly personal, even private, and done it so well that you surrender to the story, its characters, and its vision. It’s like the writer has created a glass slipper that magically fits your foot.

So, how do we take the measure of imaginary human beings, and get readers to sink so perfectly into their stories? What is a strong, sympathetic character, anyway?

Let’s get clear on terms. Sympathetic means we can relate to the character. Not that we approve of them; we’re not the Grand Inquisitor. Nor do we need to like them; we’re not planning a road trip together. We just need to access and recognize his or her distresses and desires.

strong protagonist doesn’t have to be a high-power attorney in Manhattan, a long-suffering single mother of four, or a frontiersman in Minnesota. Having social cachet or tough odds don’t equate to strength. Any of these character identities can be poorly written, flat, and inaccessible. “Strong” means that your protagonist exists as a full human being; that you’ve made us care about what they feel; and that you’ve done the work of capturing their emotions in a way that teaches us to pay better attention to our own feelings. So, whether you’re writing about the leader of the free world or a person stuck in an abusive marriage, that character can still be a strong protagonist.

TIP #1: Get us inside your protagonist’s skin.

Line-level techniques will help you create intimacy between reader and character. Example: One of the most common pitfalls I see as an editor is the overuse of facial expressions. If we’re in a character’s point of view, don’t describe facial expressions unless he or she is standing in front of a mirror and actively practicing expressions. It’s a pitfall, because it puts us outside, looking at the surface of a person. What we care about are the sensations of emotion. For instance, how would you FEEL, in your body, if you got a call from an agent offering representation? Or a letter from the IRS? Or a sheaf of drawings from your kid as he comes home from school? Chances are, you’re not aware of your face. Your heartbeat makes your voice quaver, or you’re lightheaded with worry, or your arms open up automatically to scoop up your son, and everything else melts away.

TIP #2: Decide what your protagonist wants, and why.

While you’re in there, in your character’s head and heart, ask yourself if you are completely clear about why s/he keeps moving forward toward a goal despite several failures. Good motivations are personal, emotional ones–not just some outside pressure from the plot. Having a bad guy hold a taser to your hero’s head is briefly motivating, but from a character standpoint, it’s not really compelling. When the taser goes away, what keeps your character from running home and hiding under the covers? Or when the flood waters rise, why doesn’t a main character climb straight to the roof and signal the rescue helicopters? Maybe because her grandson is stuck in the basement of the neighboring house; or maybe she’s a fugitive who will avoid the system at the expense of her life.

Good protagonists act, and often do so contrary to common sense. Like most people, they want something. But when things don’t work out the first time, that reason helps them pick themselves up off the pavement; and then when they fail again, that reason gives them no choice but to go all the way to Hell and back. Whatever this reason is, it must be compelling and personal. In some way, self-concept or sanity is at stake. They refuse to give up, not just because a Bad Event will happen in the plot if they fail, but because something in their soul will unravel if they don’t keep going.

It’s the difference between wanting the police to arrest your brother’s killer, and wanting justice.

It’s the difference between applying for a job, and wanting the dignity of work.

It’s the difference between mere plot and real drama.

A case in point: Tana French’s In the Woods (2008) is not a novel you read for the warm-and-fuzzies. It’s a hardboiled police procedural built on a concrete base of psychological suspense. And yet the reason I found myself sneaking five-minute breaks to read it during the workday was because I’d fallen in love with the characters. Underneath the crime story, what French puts at stake is a relationship between partner cops that reminded me of everything good and bad that I’d ever felt about the friendships in my life. She’s a good storyteller, a lyrical writer, and polished in her craft–all strengths that I hope to cover in this Project 2015 series–but none of these would have mattered without her mastery of writing strong protagonists. Her characters are people with secrets, wounds, ambitions, and senses of humor.

You know, just like you. And all of us. When you gain this glass-slipper clarity about your protagonist, that is when you can begin to show how his or her emotions spring from the story’s real drama.

TIP #3: Ask the questions that will develop–and thus strengthen–your main character.

My friend and college writing mentor, Jane McCafferty, told me that when you’re stuck with a character, “Give them something more”: in other words, something to defend, fight for, hide, deal with, draw identity from . . . anything rooted in drama. With that in mind, here are a few questions that have helped clients open up their characters:

  1. What secrets do they keep?
  2. What responsibility hampers how they spend their time?
  3. Are they ambitious?
  4. What favor would they do for a friend but not for themselves?
  5. What family, friend, and/or work networks shape their behavior?
  6. Who do they blame? Trust more than they should?

These are just a few questions. If you’ve had a breakthrough with one of your own characters, I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Twitter (@threepenny)!

]]> 1
Deal announcement: Imprint of Simon & Schuster buys “The Regulars”! Tue, 03 Feb 2015 18:33:36 +0000 We’re sending all the collective hip-hip-hoorays of the Internet writersphere to client Georgia Clark, whose second novel, THE REGULARS, sold last week in a preempt deal to Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It’s due out in 2016, but what a way to start 2015!

I loved this manuscript for its whip-smart humor and clever premise: Three twenty-something women in New York get their hands on a potion that makes them gorgeous, and they use their looks to attract some coveted career successes. But being beautiful has some ugly complications that leave them longing to be just “regular” again, and they learn a lot about themselves, their friendship, and what it means to truly beautiful in a culture that values prettiness above all.

Congratulations, Georgia! We’ll keep an eye on your website for news and updates!

]]> 0
Project 2015, Part 2: Make your voice original by getting rid of “received text” Wed, 28 Jan 2015 21:00:52 +0000 When I first heard the term “received text,” its meaning wasn’t immediately clear. I thought back to my Catholic elementary school lessons, and veritable old Moses grabbing a pair of stone tablets out of the sky. Received text—good? Important? Kinda heavy?

In fact, “received text” isn’t a good thing. It is a form of cliché, received from the nebulous lingo of lazy writing, stereotypes, aphorisms, business jargon, and slang re-digested back into soundbites and advertising copy. It’s our lingua franca, for better or worse: useful enough when it supplies you with easy rejoinders while stuck in an awkward conversation, but unhelpful when you are striving for nuance and originality in your fiction.

Most of us can identify a cliché: fast as lightning. A penny saved is a penny earned. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. (Actually, that one amuses me.) But the English language is full of humdrum, often nonsensical phrases that suck the life out of prose: a home-cooked meal, humble abode, gone downhill in recent years, soon learned, at present, stunning beachfront, fast friends, terrible mistake, flirted shamelessly, rotating cast, newly minted, perfect opportunity, let loose… etc. Any of these can be funny if you use them in full awareness of their unoriginality, and delight your reader with them in an unexpected, even absurd context: in short, if you reclaim the element of surprise.

Because that’s what good writing is. Surprising. Interesting. Creative. If you show up at a restaurant expecting artful food from the kitchen, but get a bowl of pablum, why stay to finish the meal? Clichés are mush. If, however, the food looks okay, and has some flavor but reminds you of every meal you’ve ever eaten at Olive Garden, then you’ll probably finish it but never be back. Received text ultimately has the same effect on a reader; and frankly, though I’m loath to waste money on a mediocre meal, I would prefer the loss to having wasted ten or fifteen hours of the weekend on a mediocre novel.

Fiction is the place to be bold and brave. To tell your truth, no matter how weird it sounds. Recognizing lifeless imagery is half of the task, but the other half—fixing it—is addressed outside of the page, too. To live a writer’s life doesn’t mean wearing peacoats, drinking yourself past the fear of a blank page, or needing to move to a villa in Italy before you can pen a magnum opus.

It does, however, mean keeping a notebook. It means noticing what you think and feel. It means taking your eyes off the damn ball once in a while, and noticing the details that are always around you every single second of the day. It begins with growing once again familiar with your vast capacity for originality, and taking the risk of writing it down. We’re all born with these abilities. We grow up and learn to be dull. And then, when we make a commitment to improving our writing craft, we get to relearn our creativity, and cheerfully experiment with it in the lines of a manuscript.


It is impossible for this single blog post to expunge received text from your writing once and for all. The best I can do is illuminate the first few lamps along the road. So: I’ve had fun draining the life out of six of my recent, favorite lines in fiction. I used word choices and phrases that I often see as an editor (the underlined parts). The information is the same, but the writing is bland, vague, and off-the-cuff. After each one, you’ll see the much-better original.

1. She had an unmemorable face and bleach-blonde hair, and I was thinking to myself that if I were in her boyfriend’s shoes I wouldn’t want to touch her with a ten-foot pole.


“She is peroxided and greasy, with the flat, stunted features of generations of malnutrition, and privately I am thinking that if I were her boyfriend I would be relieved to trade her even for a hairy cellmate named Razor.” (From In the Woods, by Tana French)


2. Rosie’s mom was always a bundle of nerves. She was rich and had the luxury of holding a grudge and unchallenged stereotypes. Her fridge held nothing but condiments and old bread. Charlie didn’t know what she ate, and once suggested to Rosie that maybe she was a vampire, but she didn’t think it was funny.


“Rosie’s mother was a high strung bundle of barely thought-through prejudices, worries, and feuds. She lived in a magnificent flat in Wimple Street with nothing in the enormous fridge but bottles of vitaminized water and rye crackers. . . . Fat Charlie thought it highly likely that Rosie’s mum went out at night in bat form to suck the blood from sleeping innocents. He had mentioned this theory to Rosie once, but she had failed to see the humor in it.” (From Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman)


3. Dench was a shifty-eyed hippy


“This was the grifter in Dench, something violent in the name of freedom . . .” (From “Wings,” by Lorrie Moore)


4. That was so typical. WASPy people will make a fuss about a lost kitten, but we Dominicans, we believe in tough love.


“That’s white people for you. They lose a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.” (From The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but Junot Díaz)


5. He looked surprised, and she could see realization dawning in his eyes. He was naive and coddled, and she wished he would toughen up.


“He looked at her in surprise and his eyes changed slowly, like land growing lighter after a cloud passes. He was naive, and it infuriated her the way he still possessed the luxury of disappointment.” (From Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman)


6. She laughed in the face of sadness.


“She seemed to be the only one who could laugh out of sadness, a sadness that made the laughter deeper and louder still, like the echo of a scream from the bottom of a well.” (From The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat)

Feel free to post a few of your own stinkers in the comments, or send them my way on Twitter (@threepenny).

Read more about Project 2015–making this year your breakthrough year–here.

]]> 3
Project 2015: A Famous Rejection Letter Wed, 21 Jan 2015 19:51:02 +0000 Orwell died this day in 1950. Here’s Knopf’s form rejection letter of a “stupid and pointless fable” called Animal Farm:

George Orwell's rejection letter

“Damn dull.”

Moral of the story? Don’t ever, ever stop at no. Do at least one thing today to make your past rejection letters frame-able.

Read more about Project 2015 here!

]]> 0
Intro to Project 2015: Scaffolding, or How You Build Something Out of Nothing Thu, 15 Jan 2015 15:58:54 +0000 Hello, fellow writers! As we begin a new year, it’s time to take a deep breath, acknowledge last year’s hard work, and start the project of 2015: make this year your best writing year ever. What are your goals?

– Work on an aspect of your craft, such as writing dialogue that zings?

– Read more published books in your genre?

– Attend a writing conference?

– Improve your focus and productivity during writing sessions?

– Make smarter, effective revisions?

Let’s call this “Project 2015.” Every few weeks, I will be sharing tips on this blog to help you walk the walk of being a writer. Let’s make 2015 the year you reach the next level—whether it’s getting an agent, publishing your own manuscript (and doing it right), or reaching a milestone in the evolution of your craft. The goal is that elusive “story magic,” when your writing creates such a vivid, urgent world for readers that they forget they’re reading. If you can practice the techniques of “un-put-down-able” fiction, success in all your other writing goals will follow.

An apt place to start something as big as Project 2015 is with scaffolding. We’re going to build high and build fast. Likewise, in storytelling, scaffolding is a first-draft technique for building your story. It’s the storyteller’s version of the complicated system of rods and platforms that we need before our novel can stand perfectly on its own, a means of constructing a skyscraper on what was once a patch of bare ground. That’s what 2015 is going to be for us, and it’s going to help us put together one hell of a novel.

(A word of gratitude where it’s due: The term scaffolding comes from Portland’s vibrant workshop culture, the Dangerous Writers system developed by Tom Spanbauer. In the hands of fellow teachers Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred, it worked wonders for my own writing in 2004–2006, and I use it in my editing to this day.)

I’m going to assume you already have a couple of things in place: the desire to write, the foundation of style (such as what you’d find in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), and an idea you want to work on. Maybe even a finished draft of a manuscript. In early drafts of that manuscript, I’ll wager, is a lot of scaffolding. It’s all the writing that comes out in a hurry, placing vital pieces of information about your story on the blank page: character motivations, world-building, informative dialogue, important information about the setting or situation. Basically, it helped you rough out the shape of your story as you wrote, using the blank page as a place for exploring connections between people and events.

I want to affirm that this is okay. Really, you do need to tell yourself the tale before you can begin perfecting it for the reader. Tricky world-building details are easier to sort out when you explain them to yourself on the page, on the fly. And as your characters get mired more deeply in the action, the easiest way to work out the hows and whys of their motivation is to just write it as you go. It keeps you from getting stuck. It’s normal. When you’re focused on pouring a first draft on paper, it’s just easier to tell instead of show.

Now it’s time to revise. The fastest way to improve your manuscript is to identify these passages and put them under the microscope. Ask yourself these questions.

– Have I repeated myself?

– What can be shown? Is there a great detail hidden here? Maybe even a whole scene? 

– What unplanned discoveries did I make while I was writing?

– What problems did I keep getting snagged on? Did I try to explain my way out of them? 

– Does the dialogue sound true to each character’s real voice, or are they explaining things to the reader?

Bottom line, to become a stronger writer, learn to identify scaffolding for what it is. It doesn’t work the kind of story magic you need in a final draft. To practice thinking about scaffolding like an editor, take one scene from an early chapter (where we writers often do a lot of explaining) and highlight every informative line. How much explaining does the scene do? How much of that information is absolutely necessary, and can it be dramatized instead? If the entire scene is yellow with highlighter, it might not even be a scene at all: all explanation and no action doesn’t move the story along.


In the middle of Oakland was a saltwater lake, and on a Saturday morning the path around its shore was full of joggers, walkers, and parents with strollers. Paige always ran two laps—six miles—with her dog.

Those are two okay sentences. They give you a general idea of a popular lake, time of day, and what the character usually does. But it’s a little vague, unless you’re writing from the POV of an assassin whose dossier on Paige has suggested where to find the target on a weekend morning.

More likely, though, this is Paige’s POV. How can you add a little more life to these lines? Effective revision involves transforming information into vivid, realistic writing, applying what you know about human beings. Get us inside Paige’s skin; let us experience the location as her. Even better, make this day different.

Paige told herself to run fast around the back finger of Lake Merritt. The gravel was uneven and heaped with bird guano. Most of the Saturday walkers and joggers stayed on the pavement along the road; the old guys with red-rimmed eyes and coats that reeked of pot hung out at these benches. Paige pushed harder, even though the benches were empty this morning. Especially because the whole path was empty and isolated. And that was when the leash snapped taught and her dog lunged at something in the trees.

It’s more vivid, and now something is happening. You don’t need the sentences in the first part of the example. Let the reader do some of the work. In this second part, I went from nothing to something by involving the character in her setting, and giving her a problem that makes this day of her life different. We don’t know what that problem is yet—if I’m writing a murder mystery novel, the dog will find a body; if I’m writing humor, what the dog finds in the trees probably won’t be quite so gory.

In short, I brought a lot of techniques to bear on getting rid of this little piece of scaffolding. In future blog posts, we’ll cover them all. Stay tuned for the next installment of Project 2015 at the end of January!

]]> 3
David Kalis makes Kirkus best-of-2014 list Mon, 29 Dec 2014 17:07:32 +0000 Congratulations to Threepenny’s client, author David Kalis, whose coming-of-age memoir Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser made the Kirkus Best Indie Memoirs of 2014 list. Here’s from the site:

By David Kalis, author with chutzpah. (Editing by Sarah Cypher, cover design by Phillip Gessert).

By David Kalis, author with chutzpah. (Editing by Sarah Cypher, cover design by Phillip Gessert).

An affecting coming-of-age memoir looking at life in the Soviet Union at a time of political and social change by American debut author Kalis.


Recent college graduate David found himself at loose ends. He knew he wanted to use his degree in Soviet East European Studies but wasn’t sure how. He embarked on a 30-day trip to the Soviet Union, hoping to improve his language skills, and ended up staying two and a half years, only returning to the United States when he had completed a voyage of self-discovery. On his very first day in Moscow in 1991, he found himself on a Soviet tank photographing a political uprising; two years later, he repeated the experience at a demonstration at the Bely Dom, the Russian White House. However, the second time, after being shot at, he underwent a watershed moment, realizing that it was time to leave the city he had made his home. Although small in stature, Kalis is big in chutzpah: He talked his way into a job, met his hero Gorbachev, and stood up to the Russian Mafia (vodka helped). Kalis’ forthrightness allows readers to see the flaws in his younger self, most of them attributable to the foibles of youth. However, despite his immaturity, he possesses a moral code, which prevented him from taking advantage of the prevalence of prostitution and pornography, preferring instead to meet partners the old-fashioned way. When Kalis finally visited the village of his grandfather’s birth, in Ukraine, he achieved a deeper understanding of his heritage and the losses his Jewish grandparents experienced during the Holocaust and pogroms. The scenes in Ukraine, in which he feels a deep connection with the people and his own faith, are particularly poignant in the context of recent events in the region. While Kalis doesn’t provide much historical background, his first-person account of life in the Soviet Union at the tail end of the Cold War provides depth that history texts cannot. Well-written and absorbing, his memoir will appeal to general readers as well as those with an interest in Eastern Europe.


A personal look at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, experienced through the eyes of an occasionally callow, but always likable, young man.

Visit Dave’s author site here, and be sure to check out his book!


]]> 0